September 12, 1977—Robert Lowell, blessed with so much technical skill as to be regarded as the greatest poet of postwar America—and cursed with a manic depression so severe as to require periodic hospitalizations—died at age 60 in the back seat of a taxicab, having left his third wife in Ireland to return to his second, long-suffering one in New York.
Related to two other famous New England poets, James Russell Lowell and Amy Lowell, as well as a President of Harvard, Robert Lowell had to earn his high regard among contemporaries by breaking away from established forms of writing. He was both the most public of poets (refusing to fight in World War II, refusing to be honored by the Johnson White House because of his opposition to the Vietnam War) and the most personal, allowing readers an unparalleled glimpse of his private agony.
In his attempt to enable readers to come as close as possible to his personal difficulties, Lowell increasingly put aside the modernist mannerisms of his early career in favor of the kind of stripped-down language employed by William Carlos Williams. His technique and personal example put him at the forefront of a group of “confessional poets” that also included John Berryman, Theodore Roethke, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton. Their work sought to mold order from the chaos of their lives: substance abuse, love affairs, broken marriages, madness, and suicide.
The following lines, from Lowell’s seminal poem “Skunk Hour,” were crucial to the formation of this new consciousness:
“A car radio bleats,
'Love, O careless Love . . . .' I hear
my ill-spirit sob in each blood cell,
as if my hand were at its throat . . . .
I myself am hell,
Clearly, this is a mind that, for reasons not understood even by the poet (especially by the poet), is disintegrating. If he were born in the baby-boom era, Lowell might have related his struggles, in exhaustive detail, in a bestselling memoir. Prozac might have gotten him over the worst of his hurdles. But in his era, even to acknowledge his psychiatric condition was enough to make many uncomfortable. As he aged and his condition worsened, he caused enormous pain not just to himself but to those closest to him.
One—the “long-suffering” wife I mentioned earlier—was the novelist-critic Elizabeth Hardwick. In three poetry collections from the early 1970s, Lowell not only revealed details about his infidelities with his eventual third wife, the Anglo-Irish Lady Caroline Blackwood, while still married to Hardwick, but also included excerpts of Hardwick’s correspondence with him as their union unraveled. Even longtime friends of Lowell, such as poet Adrienne Rich, believed Lowell had gone too far this time with this massive invasion of another's privacy.
Lowell’s condition was also noticeable to his students at Harvard, where he taught one semester each year for the last couple of decades before his death. One of those students was a professor of mine at college, who recalled that she and her classmates had become attuned to when he was having one of his psychotic episodes.
Another one of those worshipping students, critic-biographer James Atlas, recalled some of the more legendary episodes of Lowell on campus:
“I had never witnessed one of these breakdowns, but I had heard about them in grim detail: Lowell showing up at William Alfred's house and declaring that he was the Virgin Mary; Lowell talking for two hours straight in class, revising a student's poem in the style of Milton, Tennyson, or Frost; Lowell wandering around Harvard Square without a coat in the middle of January, shivering, wild-eyed, incoherent. In the seminar room on the top floor of Holyoke Center, we waited nervously—perhaps even expectantly, given the status accorded anyone who had been present at one of these celebrated episodes—for it to happen before our eyes.”
Notoriety might have made Lowell compelling to read about, but it was his prodigious talent that made him compelling to read in his own right. As Adam Kirsch wrote five years ago in The New York Sun about Life Studies, the 1959 volume from which “Skunk Hour” was taken: “In challenging the old canons of impersonality, Lowell had shown the world that the most intimate parts of life — childhood misery, Oedipal longings, marital discord, mental illness — could be made the subjects for great poetry. Never before had a poet risked so much of himself on the page.”